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Lanky and enchanting, the flamingos stood at attention, their shocking pink coats duplicated in the glassy pond water. They were the first animals I saw at the Warsaw Zoo.
The flamingos were the same animals that caught the attention of Magdalena Gross, a Jewish Polish sculptor, when she initially visited the zoo sometime before the fall of 1939. Gross confided that she had been experiencing a bit of artist’s block to the zookeeper, Dr. Jan Zabinski. In turn, he told her to consider his zoo her open-air studio. Gross went on to sculpt many of the zoo’s animals.
A few months later, on Sept. 1, 1939, the Germans invaded Poland. The blasts killed many zoo animals. Others, scared and confused, left the zoo and were subsequently killed.
The Nazi occupation of Warsaw soon followed. Jews were forced into the Warsaw Ghetto, contained by a wall topped with glass and barbed wire. Gross, like some other Jews, attempted to evade Nazis and hide in plain sight — an undertaking that made it deadly for her to leave her home.
These stories of upturned, threatened Jewish life were the kind I was expecting to hear during our family’s trip to Poland in May 2015. My mother’s parents were Polish Holocaust survivors who left post-war Poland due to ever-resilient anti-Semitism. And my father, whose own Polish Jewish parents had immigrated to America pre-war, had raised me on a steady diet of realistic Holocaust films to ensure I never forgot how lucky I was.
The trip seemed like it was meant to further ingrain the horrors of the Holocaust into my psyche. Among the other destinations on our itinerary — namely Warsaw Ghetto and Auschwitz concentration camp — the zoo didn’t seem to fit in.
When we arrived at a villa located on the grounds of the Warsaw Zoo, our guide told us it was now an exhibition. I looked around the white Bauhaus-style structure skeptically: We were the only ones there, and it was unattended and unmarked. My parents shot me a penetrating glance. Prior to the trip, I had been given the task of rigorously vetting our tour operator’s itinerary.
“You are in the living room of the Zabinskis,” our guide declared to no apparent fanfare.
He explained further: Jan, a zookeeper, and Antonina, his wife, were members of the Polish resistance. They hid more than 300 Jews in their home and animal cages despite the fact that protecting Jews was punishable by death during World War II.
Like animals trained to respond to the mention of the Holocaust, we started paying attention.
Though honored by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations in 1965, the Zabinskis had gone largely uncelebrated until author Diane Ackerman turned Antonina’s unpublished diary into the best-selling novel “The Zookeeper’s Wife” in 2007. Fast forward to today, and most folks have seen teasers for the film starring Jessica Chastain, which is set to be released at the end of this month. The trailer dramatizes Antonina’s heated interactions with Nazis.
Pointing to the piano, our guide told us that when Antonina saw a Nazi approaching the home, she would play a tune to warn those in hiding. Even this was coded retaliation: The song — “Go, go, go to Crete!” by German-French-Jew Jacques Offenbach — champions love.
Our guide then told us how insect specimens like the ones he was holding saved lives. One day, the director of the Warsaw Ghetto’s Labor Bureau came to the zoo to see the insect collection, which belonged to Dr. Szymon Tenenbaum, a ghetto occupant and famous Jewish entomologist.
Though Jan already had an Official Parks Department pass into the ghetto, he seized the opportunity to enter with the director. Under this guise of authority, Jan smuggled many Aryan-looking Jews out of the ghetto.
In addition to the stories concealed in the piano keys and preserved insects, we found the hiding places to be quite surreal. Jews took cover in animal cages as well as inside the villa itself.
We toured the sunless nooks and crannies, and I found that my mind traveled to its own grim corners. A chill crept up my spine as I imagined having to crouch in the dark, in fear and silence, for an unknowable amount of time.
But the folks here — some quite literally caged in the Pheasant and Lion houses — were free. Unlike the Nazis who saw the Jews as no better than animals, Antonina and Jan sacrificed their lives, as well as that of their son, to protect hundreds more.
In one corner I spotted an easel, paintbrushes and a few small sculptures. These are mementos of Gross, who ended up seeking shelter at the zoo.
While in hiding, Gross continued to sculpt. Like Antonina, she created beauty even when it wasn’t there.
Tour operator Exeter International can arrange private guided tours of the Warsaw Zoo as part of a comprehensive Warsaw itinerary.